CHIEF BENGE'S LAST RAID
By Luther F. Addington
Reference: Scott County Historical Society Scott County, Virginia Documents - Historical Sketches
Historic Marker - Benge's Gap Powell Valley Looking South From Benge's Gap
April 6, 1794 the half-breed Cherokee chief Benge, and his band of frontier marauders entered the quiet little settlement fifteen miles west of the present town of Abingdon and attacked the home of Peter Livingston. At the time Peter and his brother Henry were out on the farm and the women folk, children and a few slaves were in or near the house.
Peter Livingston and Henry were the sons of William Todd and Sarah Livingston who had come to Botetourt County, Virginia, around 1765 and had settled on the North Holston near the present town of Mendota. This area in 1772 lay in Fincastle County, 1776 in Washington County. (1)
Over the ensuing yeas Peter became the owner of the entire estate; furthermore, he accumulated nearly 2,000 acres additional. (2)
Because of his vast land holdings he needed many farm workers. This was done by relatives, neighbors and slaves. At the time of the Indian attack his brother Henry and Henry's second wife, Susanna, were living with him and his wife, Elizabeth. Also in the home was Peter's mother who at the time of the attack was tomahawked, resulting in her death four days later. (3)
Chief Benge was particularly interested in capturing and taking North Negroes whom he could sell for a price, and the presence of slaves on the Livingston plantation had interested him in risking the attack.
Now, let's have the story as told by Elizabeth Livingston, wife of Peter Livingston, to Arthur Campbell, military officer of the area, and certified by him to the Governor of Virginia, April 15, 1794.
It ran as follows:
"April 6, 1794, about 10 o'clock in the morning, I was sitting in my house when the fierceness of the dog's barking alarmed me. I looked out and saw seven Indians approaching the house, armed and painted in a frightful manner. No person was within but a child ten years old, another of two, and my sucking infant.
"My husband and his brother Henry had just walked out to a barn at some distance in the field. My sister-in-law, Susanna (Henry's second wife) was with the remaining children in an out-house.
"Old Mrs. Livingston (Sarah, Peter's mother) was in the garden.
"I immediately shut and fastened the door; they (Indians) came furiously up and tried to burst it open, demanding several times of me to open the door, which I refused.
"Then, they fired two guns; one ball pierced through the door but did not harm. I, then, thought of my husband's rifle, took it down; but, it being double triggered, I was at a loss. At length I fired through the door; but, it not being well aimed, I did not execution.
"However, the Indians retired from that place and soon after I found an adjoining house was on fire; and I and my children were suffering much from smoke. I opened the door; and an Indian immediately advanced and took me prisoner, together with the two children. (There were three children in the house, one an infant; this one she carried herself.)
"I then discovered that they had my remaining children in their possession, my sister-in-law Susanna, a Negro wench and her young child, a Negro man of Edward Callahan's, and a Negro boy of our own about eight years old.
"They (Indians) were fearful of going into the house to plunder, supposing that it had been a man that had shot at them and he was yet within.
"So our whole clothing and household furniture was consumed in the flames, which I was then pleased to see, rather than it should be of use to the savages.
"We were all hurried a short distance, where the Indians were busy dividing and putting in packs for each to carry his part of the booty taken.
"I observed them careless about the children, and most of the Indian being some distance off in front, I called with a low voice to my eldest daughter (Susanna), gave her my youngest child (Henrietta), and told them all to run toward neighbor John Russell's. They with reluctance left me, sometimes halting, sometimes looking back. I beckoned them to go on, although I inwardly felt pangs not to be expressed on account of our doleful separation. The two Indians in the rear either did not notice this scene, or they were willing the children might run back.
"That evening the Indians crossed Clinch Mountain and went as far as Copper Creek, distance about 8 miles.
"April 7. Set our early in the morning, crossed Clinch River at McClain's fishdam (just below the present town of Dungannon) about 12 o'clock, then steered northwardly towards the head of Stony Creek. Then, the Indians camped carelessly - had no back spy nor kept sentries out. This day's journey was about twenty miles.
"April 8. Continued in camp until the sun was more than an hour high; then, set out and slowly traveled five or six miles and camped near the foot of Powell Mountain.
"This day Benge, the Indian chief, became more pleasant and spoke freely to the prisoners. He told them that he was about to carry them to the Cherokee and Shawnee towns, that in his route in the wilderness was his brother with two other Indians hunting, so that he might have provisions when he returned; that at his camp were several white prisoners taken from Kentucky, with horses and saddles to carry them to the towns.
"He made inquiry of several persons on Holston, particularly Old General Shelby, and said he would pay him a visit during the ensuing summer and take away all his Negroes. He frequently inquired who had Negroes and threatened he would have them all off North Holston. He said all the Chickamooga towns were for war and would soon be very troublesome for the white folks.
"This day, April 8, Benge sent two of the Indians ahead to hunt.
"April 9. After traveling about five miles, which was over Powell's Mountain and near the foot of Stone Mountain, a party of 13 men, under command of Lieutenant Vincent Hobbs, of the militia of Lee County, met the enemy in front, attacked and killed Benge the first fire. I was at that time some distance off in the rear. The Indian who was my guard at first halted on hearing the firing. He, then, ordered me to run, which I performed slowly. He, then, attempted to strike me in the head with the tomahawk, which I defended as well as I could with my arm. By this time two of our people came in view, which encouraged me to struggle all I could. The Indian at this instant pushed me backward; and I fell over a log, at the same time aiming a violent blow at my head, which in part spent its force on me and laid me out for dead. The first thing I afterward remembered was my good friends around me giving me all the assistance in their power for my relief. They told me I was senseless for about an hour.
"Certified this 15th day of April, 1794. "A. Campbell" (4)
Eventually Peter and Henry Livingston saw smoke boiling above the low rolling hills between their barn and their home; they ran homeward but when they arrived the houses were nearly burned down. Lying on the ground were the bodies of Sarah Livingston and one Negro child, each having been tomahawked.
The Livingston men knew there were about three trails the Indians could take across Clinch Mountain, or they could go by way of Moccasin Gap and there take the Wilderness road. Trail signs showed they had likely gone toward Hamilton Gap in Clinch Mountain.
The little settlement did not have enough men to pursue and hope to get in sight of the party. But, they could hurry to other settlements and get enough help to overpower the Indians if they cut them off somewhere to the north.
So, one man, John Henderson, was sent on horseback to alert the settlers in Powell Valley, about seventy miles to the northwest on the Wilderness Road. The two Livingston men, Peter and Henry, set off in the direction of Castle's Woods to the northeast. It was their plan to get help at this settlement and to block all trails in the Cumberland Mountains.
The Livingston men, knowing that the Indians had taken white women, and Negroes whom they could sell, would not likely kill any of them on the march. Believing this, the men decided to risk going long distances for help rather than to try to pursue directly. If just a few men should have overtaken the savages, the women would have been killed, they knew.
Now, let's examine the records and try to straighten out a few points of contention existing even today in the area where Chief Benge was killed.
To begin with, several years ago a marker was put up just south of Norton, Virginia, saying that a little way above it, at the base of High Knob, the highest peak of Powell Mountain, Benge was slain by Vincent Hobbs of the Lee County militia. The little stream which flows out of the mountain at this point bears the name Benge's Branch.
The facts do not bear out the correctness of this marker. We can see by Mrs. Livingston's account of the 9th day's traveling that, after camping the night before at the base of Powell Mountain, they went about five miles, which was over Powell Mountain and to the foot of Stone Mountain, where Hobbs and his men met them. Stone Mountain has its beginning west of Norton and continues until it is broken by the well-known Big Stone Gap, situated just north of the town of Big Stone Gap. The mountain here has been worn into a great, rugged, stone gap by the northern tributary of Powell River.
Now, it was at this great Stone Gap that Chief Benge was most likely slain by Hobbs. Charles B. Cole in his account of Mrs. Scott's capture by Chief Benge in Lee County in 1785, said, "Benge was killed nine years later (after the Mrs. Scott captivity) as he was making his way to Big Stone Gap with the Livingston captives." (5)
Summers, quoting a manuscript letter of Benjamin Sharp, further states, "Vincent Hobbs was a lieutenant in the militia of Lee County, Virginia, and, at the time in question, he was attending court of that county which was in session. Upon the arrival of the express with the news of the Indian invasion, the court immediately adjourned; and a party was organized upon the spot, under the command of Hobbs, to waylay a gap in the Cumberlands called Stone Gap, through which the Indians were supposed to pass.
"In this party, besides Vincent Hobbs, were: John Van Bever, Job Hobbs, Stephen Jones, James Huff, James Van Bever, Peter Van Bever, Abraham Hobbs, Adam Ely, Samuel Livingston, George Yokum and _____ Dotson." (6)
Although Elizabeth Livingston in her account said there were thirteen men in Hobbs party, only twelve are named by Sharp. One of these had a blank instead of the first name. Since the writer of the letter was uncertain about the first name, he might also have been uncertain about the sir name. This was probably Captain William Dorton, a scout for Andrew Lewis, who was in the party.
Under date of April 19, 1795 Andrew Lewis wrote the governor of Virginia as follows: "The inhabitants in pursuit of the Indians retook the prisoners and killed two of them. The rest ran off. Captain William Dorton, one of my scouts, who was with the party, endeavoring to head them off, fell in with them that ran off, being three in number, two of which he killed on the ground; the other ran off mortally wounded. Only one escaped without a wound." (7)
"Prior to this battle, Lieutenant Hobbs on reaching Stone Gap, discovered that Indians had just passed through before him; he, therefore, pursued with eagerness and soon discovered two Indians kindling a fire; these they instantly dispatched, and finding some plunder with them, which they knew must have been taken from the Livingston house, they at once came to the conclusion that these two had been sent forward to hunt for provisions and that the others were yet behind with the prisoners." (8)
Now, since Stone Gap was closer to Lee County than any other Indian trail crossing the Cumberlands and since Benge had come this way with Mrs. Scott in 1785, it is hardly likely that Hobbs would have gone beyond this pass up the North Fork of Powell to the present town of Norton. Furthermore, Peter and Henry Livingston, together with another posse, had come around through Russell County to examine other trails.
Summers states that Benge was most likely slain at the present town of Dorchester, about three miles northwest of Norton. (9) However, Dorchester is about as far from Stone Mountain as Norton is.
Further on this point, Andrew Lewis, military officer in command of the southwestern Virginia militia, wrote to the governor of Virginia as follows: "By their (Benge and party) passing through the Stone Gap in Powell's Mountain suspect they were southern Indians. (10)
It seems that Andrew Lewis knew that there was a Stone Gap, but he was not acquainted well enough with the geography of the southwestern mountains of Virginia to know that Powell Mountain has no Stone Gap but that Stone Mountain, the next range north of Powell, does have one.
As to the trail Benge took after his camping at the foot of Powell Mountain (southern side) April 7, he must have gone down Hunter's Valley, alongside the southern foot of Powell Mountain until striking Cove Creek, thence up it to its headwaters, through Maple Gap, down Cracker's Neck to the present town of Big Stone Gap, and thence to the entrance of Stone Gap in Stone Mountain.
Now, let's view the site as described by the last surviving member of the Hobbs' party, Dr. James Huff of Kentucky, in an interview 1846 for the Jacksonian, a newspaper published in Abingdon and filed in the Draper Papers." (11)
"Some time in the month of April 1794, just before daylight, a man by the name of John Henderson rode up to Yokum Station in Powell Valley and informed the station that Indians had taken the wives of Peter and Henry Livingston...
"...the writer has seen this spot where Benge was killed; it is one of those deep, dark mountain passes where the ridge on each side seems to reach the clouds, an the center of the deep, gloomy valley below is covered with large masses of unshaken rocks, with a wild furious stream, tumbling and rolling in the midst.
"These backwoodsmen sat but a short while in their hiding places until two of them highest up the precipice, V. Hobbs and J. Van Bever, saw an Indian and the wife of Peter Livingston coming." (12) However, it was not Peter's wife but Henry's.
Now, there is no such rugged terrain as described here just south of Norton: no great boulders, no great gorge; no cliffs, merely a small hump of stone which is claimed to be Hobbs' hiding place; no stream which could be called a furious one, just a small branch which today is called Benge's Branch. Now, it must be recognized that there were no white settlers in Norton until about 1890, nearly a hundred years after Benge's demise; consequently, traditional stories, and the failure to study facts as recorded in reports of responsible persons of the time, have led to errors in designating the scene of Benge's death.
Hobbs and Van Bever reached Elizabeth soon after she was struck with the tomahawk. An hour later she regained consciousness.
Shortly thereafter, her husband, Peter, together with Henry, arrived on the scene, happy that their wives had been rescued. Susanna, Henry's wife (his second wife) had been in the group immediately led by Benge. As soon as Elizabeth was recovered sufficiently to travel, she and her kinsmen started back home.
Settlers on the frontier rejoiced when they heard that the renegade, half-breed Chief Benge, was dead.
Arthur Campbell, in a letter to the governor of Virginia dated April 29, 1794, said, "I send the scalp of Captain (Why he used the term captain, it is not known) Benge, that noted murderer, as requested by Lieutenant Hobbs, to your excellency...as a proof that he is no more, and of the activity and good conduct of Lieutenant Hobbs, in killing him and relieving the prisoners. Could it be spared from our treasury, I would beg leave to hint that a present of a neat rifle to Mr. Hobbs would be accepted as a reward for his services, and the executive may rest assured that it would serve as a stimulus for future exertions against the enemy." 13)
In accordance with the recommendations of Colonel Campbell, the General Assembly of Virginia voted Mr. Hobbs a "beautiful silver-mounted rifle."
Although there was gladness at the Livingston home on the Holston over the return of the captives and the killing of the notorious Chief Benge, it wasn't long until the event brought a threat of war from the Cherokees and the frontier was again thrown into panic.
Of the pending trouble Arthur Campbell wrote the governor, April 21, 1794, "Although this success (the killing of Benge) lessens the apprehensions of the inhabitants, yet from the declared intention of the Chickamooga party of the Cherokees to go to war, and their actually having lately 200 warriors out in small parties, the western settlements of this county and the adjoining settlements in Lee County talk of moving off if there is not some protection by the government afforded them." (14)
The Virginia government seemed in no hurry to send military help to the settlers of Washington and Lee Counties and consequently the state of fear of revenge attacks grew more tense. In regard to the situation Arthur Campbell tried again.
On July 9th, the same year, he wrote as follows:
"By intelligence from Knoxville, the uncle of Capt. Bench is out with thirty warriors to take revenge in Virginia. The necessity of having some men on duty near Moccasin Gap, the former place of his haunts, and now we suppose of his avengers, seems urgent. Were Captain Lewis' company so arranged as to cover that settlement, and he be active in ranging the woods, it might in a degree appease the fears of the inhabitants. That part of Lee County which turned out so cleverly under Lieutenant Hobbs in pursuit of Bench, is altogether exposed; that is, they have no part of the guard on duty nearer than forty miles. My own conjecture is that, Hobbs and his friends may be the sufferers. All late accounts say that the whole of the lower Cherokees are for war." (15)
The revenge threat, however, failed to mature; and, to the joy of the settlers, Benge's was the last invasion by a marauding Indian band on this, Virginia's last frontier.
FOOTNOTES: (1) Will Book 1, p. 73, Abingdon Court Records; (2) Summers, L. P., Annals of Southwest Virginia; (3) Cole, Charles B,. Life of Wilburn Waters; (4) Calendar Virginia State Papers, Vol. 7, pp. 111-112; (5) Summers, L. P., Annals of Southwest Virginia; (6) Draper, L. C., 12CC60; (7) Virginia State Papers; (8) Summers, L. P., History of Southwest Virginia, pp. 441-442 further quoting Sharp's MS; (9) Ibid, p. 441; (10) Virginia State Papers, vol. 7, p. 115; (11) Draper 12CC60; (12) Ibid; (13) Virginia State Papers, Vol. 7, p. 118; (14) Ibid, Vol. 1, pp. 117-118; (15) Ibid, p. 210.